“Now listen to what I tell you,” said Mr Mackay the PE teacher. “When Mrs Biles announces the first dance, all of you, and I mean all of you, will step forward, advance, approach a young lady and ask her if she would like to dance.” Next month we would hold our school dance in here. But it didn’t matter how much tinsel and crepe you draped over the wall bars; you couldn’t disguise the gymnastic atmosphere of sweat and fear. Mackay might have been a field commander issuing instructions on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. When the whistle blows, over the top. Fix bayonets, don’t cluster, march, don’t run. Mackay smiled a thin lipped, gloating smile. “And if I see anybody lagging behind, believe me…” – he held up his opposed thumb and forefinger with the tips a millimetre apart – “I will make him feel this small.” The summary court martial; the firing squad at dawn. A brief moment’s writhing in the mud, calling for mother, and then the blessed coup de grace. I glanced across no man’s land – the width of a badminton court – to the enemy trench. They looked more confident than us. They seemed to have a better handle on what was going on. There was amusement and laughter and even a tinge of excitement. But here and there was a silent one, cringing on the bench under the wall bars, in dread anticipation of the cold steel of that bayonet, looking down at the stain of blood on her own gym slip, wondering what it meant.
Mrs Biles rammed the stylus down on to the vinyl. “Gentlemen, take your partners for a St Bernard’s Waltz!” I glanced to my left. Buckie, impossibly, had wedged himself behind the wall bars. He was trembling. I said, “Come on, Buckie, it’s not that bad.”
“Leave me alone!”
We left the redoubts and parapets, we crossed the salient, not to the strain of the bagpipe, but to the cosy blend of accordion, piano, and violin. I had no agenda, no plan, save to stay upright and go through the motions and make sure Mackay didn’t make me feel this small. I was afraid of Mackay but I didn’t respect him. Even then I believe I knew him for what he was, a psychopath and a sadist. I had come to this realisation a few weeks ago in the same gym when we had been practising floor exercises under his tutelage. We lay supine staring at the ceiling. Then we flexed our knees so our feet were flat on the floor. Then we placed our palms flat on the floor behind our heads. Then we lifted our hips and torsos off the floor in a high arch. It was called “the crab”. Buckie couldn’t do it. Mackay was humiliating him.
“Get your fat bottom off the floor, Arbuckle. Higher! Higher!”
Buckie sweated and strained and by some monumental effort achieved the arc. Mackay placed his foot on his stomach. The superstructure collapsed.
“Arbuckle, you’re rubbish!”
I didn’t forget that.
Mackay had been something in the military, an NCO or something, I dunno. I didn’t understand the hierarchies, had absolutely no inkling of the ingrained class structures of army life. I just had the sense that Mackay had retained his military bearing and persona after he’d been demobbed so that he could carry on behaving badly. He used to take us for rugby. We were rubbish at rugby. All these posh schools racking up scores like substantial snooker breaks against us. It was the most dismal part of my education. I learned how to lose. I was very confused about rugby. It was encouraged over football (some people even called it football) because it seemed to be an upwardly mobile activity for youngsters. The oval ball, muscular Christianity and all that. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell Mr Mackay where he could stuff his oval ball.